Given at the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham during the diocesan pilgrimage to Walsingham in the Year of Mercy, 9 July 2016.
In a few minutes, in the Eucharistic Prayer of our Mass today, we shall say 'You are indeed Holy, O Lord and you never cease to gather a people to yourself'. Well the Lord has certainly done so today! What a gathering we are! What a joyful gathering, come to express our love and devotion to Mary and to give whole-hearted praise to our Heavenly Father.
Before such a great gathering, I did not know which way to face, that way or this! But either way I am with you, facing the Father's presence in his holy people. Together we stand before him, before him who is in the midst of us, always!
Today we come to Mary on our Jubilee pilgrimage in this grace-filled Year of Mercy. We come to her who is our Mother of Mercy. We come bearing her images to remind us of her gentle love for us. Today we carry the statue of Our Lady of Willesden together with Our Lady of Walsingham. Now, please listen to this. The last time these two statues were together was on a fateful day in 1538 when they were burned in a great bonfire, witnessed by Thomas Cromwell in his garden in Chelsea, the garden of the house of St Thomas More which he had acquired and where our seminary Allen Hall now stands. The ashes of these statues were thrown into the Thames. Today is the first time that this current image of the Black Madonna of Willesden has left London and the two statues are brought together today as a sign of our enduring love for the Mother of Mercy.
Today we reflect on the marvelous ways in which the wonder of God's mercy is indeed fully expressed in the Virgin Mary.
Pope Francis used these words in order to make this wonder clear:
'Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, Mary, from the outset was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son Jesus. Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation”(Luke 1.50). We too are included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary.’
Then he continued:
'At the foot of the cross Mary, together with John, the disciple of love, witnessed the words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus. This supreme expression of mercy towards those who crucified him shows us the point to which the mercy of God can reach. Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone without exception' (MV 24).
Here we learn that Mary will bring us into the tender embrace of God's mercy and that this mercy 'knows no bounds and extends to everyone without exception'.
As these lessons sink into our hearts today, here and now, let us think of the people we know, whom we may well love dearly, whom we want to bring into these merciful arms, whose lives and hearts cry out for a new start and the freshness of forgiveness. Let us also look deep into our own souls and bring to Mary the darkness that lies there, the areas of our living, of our imagining, of our acting that are as yet untouched by the grace of mercy and the freedom it brings. Day by day during this Year of Mercy we are learning to do just this, to use willingly the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to know its joy.
The last time I was here in Walsingham I sat quietly for an hour before the statue of Our Lady, over there, in the slipper chapel. Slowly the beauty of her presence seeped into my soul. It came particularly in an image: the image of her mantle. I became aware of my life being guarded and warmed by the cover of her mantle, a covering that was never closing me in, or cutting me off, but giving me such a profound sense of safety and security even in every uncertainty and fear, and there are plenty of those! It was such an experience and it has left me with a memory, a living memory of such peace. She is here for us all today. We are glad, and wise, to come to her.
There is another thing that Mary, the Mother of Mercy, has to teach us. As we know, she was conceived without sin: that unique privilege, preparing her for her calling. This Immaculate Conception is the work of God's mercy, saving her from every stain of sin. This teaches us a marvelous truth: that God's mercy precedes sin. We see it in her and in her we learn that God’s mercy comes before all sin, all our sins. Long before we sin, God's mercy exists, waiting to embrace us and bring us back.
Also in Mary we see the effect of this mercy. Since sin does not touch her, the burning desire of God for our salvation, which is God's mercy, enlarges Mary's heart so that it becomes entirely God's instrument. In us the effect of sin is the opposite. Sin contracts our hearts. Sin reduces everything to our own dimensions: our own limited notion of love, rather than God's; our inflated ideas about what we need, rather than God's; our decision about what is 'good', rather than the truly good, which comes to us from God. Thus sin damages and limits us. It shuts us in on ourselves. Yet mercy, however it arrives in our hearts, rescues us from this prison and opens us again to the fullness of love, the fullness of goodness which is in Jesus our Blessed Lord. Then we will become, in the words of St Paul, 'God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he has meant us to live it' (Eph. 2.10).
Today we come to our Mother of Mercy that we may receive that mercy afresh. How does mercy come to us? In a thousand ways. In the sacraments, certainly. And here in Walsingham we recall that we are all to be instruments of mercy towards each other. Mary, the perfect Ark of the Covenant, who journeyed across the hills of Galilee bearing in her womb the Mercy of God incarnate, invites us, in our own way, to be little arks of that same covenant, bearing for each other the mercy of God in its spiritual and corporal works.
And here in Walsingham we learn that the family is a privileged place in which we are to do that, day by day. Later we will stand at the site of the Holy House, that image of the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. There we can pray that our homes may be Holy Houses, blessed by the Lord and characterised by our tireless mercy and patience for one another.
Today is such a rich and rewarding day. I could go on and on! But I must not.
Simply, let us rejoice in its every moment. Let us give ourselves into the embrace of our tender Mother. Let her mantle enfold us, giving us warmth and safety in every trial. Let us ask her to make us, in her own manner, bearers of the Word of God for each other, always showing to others, especially those most in need, the merciful face of our loving Father. Let us ask her to bless our families, those living and those who have died, that we too may make Holy Houses where all are welcome and where her image is to be seen and her name often on our lips. In the words of the Gospel, let us ask her to change our lives, our jars of water, whether still or sparkling, into the best wine of the Kingdom. She asked her Son for that in Cana in Galilee. She will ask him again, for us, here in Walsingham, in England, her Dowry. And he will not refuse. Amen.